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Keep the home fires burning

June 12, 2007|Erika Schickel | ERIKA SCHICKEL is the author of the memoir "You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom."

I GREW UP IN Manhattan, in the glow of the WPIX-TV yule log, so when I bought my home in Los Angeles, I made darn sure that it had a working fireplace. Most winter nights find my family gathered before a crackling hearth, playing cards, reading or just staring, hypnotized, into the flames. Fire is, after all, the original hominid home entertainment center.

Turns out this creature comfort could make me a gross polluter in the eyes of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. My fireplace, along with the 1.9 million others, dump tons of particulate matter into the air, which leads to 5,400 premature deaths a year in Southern California. Particulate matter also makes compliance with the federal Clean Air Act nearly impossible.

Regional air quality managers last week approved a plan containing 30 measures limiting pollution caused by wood smoke, including a ban on fires on days when the air quality is unhealthful, a ban on installing wood-burning fireplaces in new houses and requirements for homeowners to replace wood stoves and fireplaces with gas log inserts upon sale of their home.

I've inhaled enough wood smoke to know that the AQMD has a point. It's pretty harsh stuff. But I am sorry we've arrived at the point in our evolution where fire has become bad for us. It has been our historical friend and is part of who we are on a primal level.

Of all the elements, fire is the only one humans can make. We have used it to our advantage for millenniums. A whiff of wood smoke in the night air evokes comfort and security. It is a Proustian call to our primal selves. For wherever we humans have roamed and homed -- in cave or castle, campsite or condo -- fires have been at the center, warming us, feeding us, protecting us from animals and evil spirits. From this perspective, the Bic lighter can be seen as one of the most sublime expressions of the opposable thumb.

Maybe we've simply evolved right past fire. It's been replaced by central heating and television. In temperate Los Angeles, a fire is mostly a luxury item, like a bubble bath. It's little more than an element-based mood enhancer.

Frankly, I was surprised by the AQMD's grim statistics -- wood fires add 7 tons of particulate matter to the air each day -- as I was under the impression that fire-making was becoming a lost art. So many hearths these days seem to be stuffed with candles or dried flowers, or most obscene of all, TVs.

Any honyock can fall asleep with a burning cigarette and start a brush fire, but building and tending a controlled wood fire is a craft that requires study, practice and a grasp of basic physics. Like being able to drive a stick shift, fire-building is an essential life skill. My children are encouraged (and supervised) in their fire play. This weekend, we are celebrating the end of the school year with a ritualistic bonfire of their old school papers in our backyard fire bowl. Hold your breath, neighbors.

The AQMD's proposed rules -- which must be voted on one by one to become law -- are all very moderate and common-sensical. But it isn't hard to imagine a day coming when there's an outright law against fires, such as the one in the San Joaquin Valley, which fines violators $300.

Also, isn't there something harebrained in plugging our flues while the hills around us burn? When I asked an AQMD spokesman about how much particulate matter wildfires contribute to air quality, he came up empty. Could we be missing out on an opportunity here? Maybe we could harvest all that dried brush, bundle it with yellow caution tape, throw in a fire voucher and sell it as "The L.A. Brush Fire-Starter Kit."

What the AQMD would really like to see us do is curl up in front of a hissing, odorless gas log. Personally, I get the same thrill from a gas fire that I do watching water boil on my stove.

Fire is not simply about light and heat, it's about combustion -- logs rubbing together, popping and releasing smoke and heat. A fire has a dramatic story arc: from wood to ember to ash. A fire has a smell, which we have a prehistoric jones for. Otherwise we might as well just settle for the televised yule log. Or, I know, we could get one of those blowers with the tissue-paper flames. Then we could live like a wax museum diorama of what life looked like back in the olden days when home fires were still legal.

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